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School district moves ahead with reopening plans despite outcry from educators (updated)


By Jeri Davis | Images by Eric Marks

COVID-19 data: A look at the math for numbers we’re reporting

When first published, we made several calculating errors in this story. These were corrected within a few hours after publication. 

However, after speaking with several readers who had questions about the method used to calculate another figure in the story—the seven-day average positivity rate—This Is Reno reached out to Washoe County Health District Public Information Officer Scott Oxarart to see how the Health District calculates these figures.

Oxarart said the confusion is understandable. He explained that this is the most difficult to calculate of the three criteria outlined in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s updated reopening plan. 

He explained the WCHD is working to get seven-day average positivity rate information worked into its own dashboard, saying the information should go live on the Washoe County COVID-19 response website by next week.

Sisolak’s reopening plan documents note that county average positivity rates can be skewed by some factors, including widely varying testing numbers from day to day, delays in test results and a “lack of reporting of patient county of residence” by test providers.

A seven-day lag period is used to account for any “reporting delay (which may be different between positive and negative tests),” the plan notes. 

What this means is that in order to determine average positivity for a seven-day period, one would take the number of tests conducted for each of the seven days and compare them with the number of positive cases reported for seven days—beginning with positive cases reported seven days after the first test. 

For example, to determine test positivity rates for the period from July 29 to Aug. 4, one would look at the number of tests given on July 29 and compare it to the number of new positive cases reported on Aug. 5 (seven days later), eventually arriving at comparing tests given Aug. 4 to results reported on Aug. 11. These rates can then be added up and averaged for the seven-day period.

Running the numbers in this way reveals that in the last month Washoe County’s test positivity rate, according to the governor’s calculation method, has hovered between around 6% to 7%—much less than the 13.4% that was originally calculated in the story.

Oxarart said he hopes in the weeks to come everyone involved in reporting COVID-19 numbers will adapt to use the calculation methods laid out in the governor’s plan. He said it would be difficult to understand the other two of three criteria the school district is considering adopting that would trigger school closures — a seven-day average of new cases exceeded 100 per 100,000 for two consecutive weeks and a seven-day increase in new cases equal to or greater than 10% — without knowing if they’ll be calculated in the same way as the positivity rate. 

However, the school district’s proposed criteria are only preliminary. They will be discussed by the board of trustees again at its next meeting. 

Other calculations taken under consideration by the Health District and the State are much easier to calculate. 

For example, to arrive at the case rate per 100,000, one need only look at the current number of active cases being reported in a county, divide it by the number of people in said county and multiply it by 100,000 to arrive at the number. 

In this example, let’s take the number of current active cases in Washoe County—1,056—and divide it by the county’s population of about 478,155 people, multiplied by 100,000 to arrive at the number of roughly 221 per 100,000 people in the county who currently have coronavirus. 

Other numbers that were incorrectly stated in the original story were not the result of confusion over complicated calculations but, rather, calculation errors–including the original calculation of Washoe County’s current infection rate. 

As mentioned, WCHD has recommended schools not open until the rate of COVID-19 infections arrives at 100 or fewer cases per 100,000. 

In the original calculation for this story, the cumulative number of infections since March for Washoe County was used to calculate this figure instead of the correct current, active cases. The incorrect calculation resulted in a figure of 1,220 per 100,000. The accurate, corrected number is the one reflected in the story now, 221 per 100,000.

Original Story

The Washoe County School Board of Trustees held an in-person meeting at Spanish Springs High School on Tuesday evening, with less than a week before schools in the district are set to open on Aug. 17.

The Washoe County Health District recommended schools not open until the rate of COVID-19 infections arrives at 100 or fewer active cases per 100,000. That rate is currently more than two times as high in Washoe County, at 221 per 100,000 people*.

Teachers and their family members arrived at the school before the 4 p.m. meeting to protest the reopening of schools for what they are calling inherently unsafe working conditions.

They chanted, “I don’t know is not an answer.”

Some dispersed when the meeting began. Others filed inside the school to wait turns to speak during public comment.

Darren Fleck was among them. He’s been a teacher for 21 years. Fleck started his comment by thanking the trustees for putting themselves in the difficult position of making hard decisions before moving on to criticize WCSD Superintendent Kristen McNeill. 

He said his “jaw dropped” when he returned from a weekend camping trip and read an article in which McNeill told reporters no principals had come to her to express doubts about reopening.

“The plan currently is, ‘I don’t know?’” Fleck said in regard to the reopening. “Can I pass out papers and collect them? The answer is ‘I don’t know.’”

He suggested McNeill should resign.

Natha Anderson—president of the district’s teachers’ union and a second-generation Washoe County educator who’s been teaching for 23 years—told the board of trustees, “This is my home. This is my family.”

Anderson told the board that other teachers have come to her with their questions and concerns about reopening, “not because they think I’m going to have the answer, but because they know I’m not afraid of retaliation,” she said.

Calen Evans—an elementary school teacher and president of the teacher group, Empower Nevada teachers—also brought up teachers feeling intimidation and fearing retaliation.

“We are not scared anymore,” he said. “We are going to speak out because obviously no one else will. We are done being intimidated by the district.”

Sarah Cheek is a teacher who works with special needs students. She says she’s submitted many questions to the district that have gone unanswered.

“My kids need toileting assistance, but I’m supposed to stay six feet away,” she said. “How is that supposed to work?”

Teacher Amanda Rodriguez told the board she feels like teachers are being forced to lie to the families of students concerning social distancing.

“Have you ever seen our hallways at passing?” she asked them. “Have you ever seen our children at lunchtime? No, they’re not going to be six feet apart.”

After the teacher who spoke next also asked questions of the board, McNeill interrupted public comment for a moment to note that board members are not allowed to address questions received during public comment.

Teachers leave the WCSD Board of Trustees meeting after sharing public comment about the reopening of schools.
Teachers leave the WCSD Board of Trustees meeting after sharing public comment about the reopening of schools. Image: Eric Marks

Several teachers went over their allotted three-minute speaking time and were cut off by the board. Teachers gathered in the foyer outside of the meeting after public comment. 

Agnes Coleman who’d gone over her allotted time and ended by holding up a large sign with “WTF?” told This Is Reno she’d wanted to finish her statement by representing the students at Echo Loder Elementary School where she teaches.

She said the information provided to the district by Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick should have superseded any other considerations and led to remote learning until cases of COVID-19 were fewer.

“He literally stated that children will die, and they’re sending us back,” Coleman said.

Selena La Rue—a North Valleys teacher—who told the board during public comment that they are sending teachers, staff and students into a situation they don’t understand, told This Is Reno afterward, “I’m just really concerned that the district has had five months to prepare, and we are six days away from having kids and have no answers. People in my building are asking my principal questions—and she’s actually awesome and trying to be proactive—and all she can say is, ‘They haven’t decided yet. They haven’t given us guidance yet.’

“I’m worried that the board ignored science, ignored the health officer, and is throwing us back into an unplanned and dangerous situation because it’s convenient,” she added.

Board considers PPE, criteria for reclosing

Washoe County Commission Chair Bob Lucey, the liaison for WCSD on Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, spoke at the meeting. He told the trustees that Washoe County wants to help the school district in any ways it can and is hoping to find a way to help with contact tracing.

Superintendent McNeill said she would welcome any help from the county and noted that the district is planning to hire two additional nurses to help track the spread of COVID-19 in the schools.

Giving a piece of advice to the board of trustees, Lucey said, “You are not bound to the decision you make. You can pivot.”

The trustees discussed what might lead them to “pivot” and close schools for in-person learning, eventually landing on and giving preliminary approval to a policy that would close schools should a rise in COVID-19 cases occur.

Basically, WCSD would close schools if two out of the following three conditions are met:

  1. A seven-day average of new cases exceeded 100 per 100,000 for two consecutive weeks
  2. A seven-day average positivity rate equal to or greater than 10% for two consecutive weeks
  3. A seven-day increase in new cases equal to or greater than 10%.

The proposal will be considered again during the board’s next meeting. In the meantime, the school district still plans on reopening.**

The World Health Organization recommends reopening efforts be stalled in places until a positivity rate of 5% or less is reached and held for two straight weeks.

Suspected COVID-19 cases have already caused problems at local schools where teachers have been working in advance of the Aug. 17 reopening.

WCSD Chief Strategies Officer Paul LaMarca said cases have been on the decline in Washoe County.

“At least at this point, we are going in the right direction,” he said.

While debating the criteria, trustees also discussed how much notice families would be given if a shutdown were to occur—with several suggestions ranging from a few days to a few weeks. The lengthy suggestion was criticized by Board Vice President Angie Taylor, who said the district should not “say it’s not safe to go to school, but keep going.”

Early on in the discussion it was suggested that McNeill could have the power to make the call on closing schools in the face of rising cases but was agreed among the trustees that having the sole power to do so would put a lot of pressure on her.

PPE and resources questioned

Trustees also heard from WCSD Chief Facilities Management Officer Adam Searcy, who explained that Quat-Stat 5 disinfectant, a common cleaner in hospital environments, had been removed from classrooms after teachers complained about the warning label on the product, which indicates that inhaling or absorbing the product through skin can be fatal. 

Teachers will instead get soapy water in their classrooms to use should they decide to. Searcy told This Is Reno that teachers will not be required to clean classrooms between class periods and also that the Quat-Stat 5—which has been used by district custodians for years now—will still be used for evening cleanings.

A teacher speaks during public comment at the WCSD Board of Trustees meeting. Image: Eric Marks

Searcy also relayed to trustees a long list of supplies that have been distributed to schools, including 4,200 half-liter-sized containers of hand sanitizer to classrooms and school buses, 2,000 gallons of refill hand sanitizer, 600 bulk hand sanitizers for high traffic areas and 3,900 quart-sized bottles. More than 500 panels of Plexiglass have been distributed, as well as 3,000 gallons of soap and 4,400 rolls of paper towels.

The school district will not, however, be taking the temperatures of anyone coming onto school grounds. It is instead encouraging parents to check their kids’ temperatures at home.

Personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer are not the only things the district has been purchasing. The district still needs to purchase additional devices to provide internet access to students.

Some 4,000 laptops the district ordered are expected to be delivered in October. However, another 7,000 are projected to be needed.

WCSD has purchased 25 Kajeet SmartBus WiFi units. These units generally work within a 150-to-300-foot radius and can provide internet access to 60 users. The district has also purchased 300 mobile hotspots and has another 300 on order.

The school district will need these supplies to meet the needs of students learning remotely, either entirely or sometimes as a part of the hybrid in-person and distance learning plan. At this point, the families of nearly a quarter of students in the district have chosen full distance learning. That amounts to more than 15,000 students. However, 49,000 will be opting for in-person learning—which will be full-time in-person for 25,000 elementary school students and part-time in-person for 24,000 middle and high school students.

McNeill responds to retaliation allegations 

McNeill took time during the meeting on several occasions to address comments and criticisms made by teachers.

Early on in the meeting she said, “Time is something we would all like” but noted the district has already “delayed school one entire week.”

McNeill also said that she answers each question she receives from employees, saying she receives up to 200 emails a day regarding things from distance learning to cleaning products, and she answers each one from employees.

“I email them back and respond, and we are working on this,” she said. “Sometimes they like the response. Sometimes they don’t.”

Late into the nine-hour meeting as the time drew nearer to 1 a.m., McNeill became somewhat emotional when addressing allegations made during public comment about teachers refraining from speaking out for fear of retaliation.

“I want to be very, very clear it is not tolerated in this school district,” she said.

McNeill said her leadership team and the school board know it’s a personal issue for her—especially after she spoke openly last year about bullying she was the subject of under the leadership of former Superintendent Traci Davis. She also said she would be in touch with the labor department to address the allegations. 

Teachers used social media to voice their disbelief at McNeill’s statements concerning retaliation. Many took the Facebook group Empower Nevada Teachers to call the statements a lie. 

Several posted that they had been told principals were instructed to discipline teachers who wrote or spoke critically about the district. Several others noted that they’d chosen to resign either as a result of retaliation or out of fear of spreading or catching COVID-19.

The district is facing a number of complaints and lawsuits alleging retaliation, failure to properly ensure due process in employee disputes and aggressive tactics from WCSD’s attorneys.

WCSD General Counsel Neil Lombardo at the Board of Trustees meeting Aug. 11, 2020. Image: Eric Marks
WCSD General Counsel Neil Rombardo at the Board of Trustees meeting Aug. 11, 2020. Image: Eric Marks

During the meeting, the district’s Chief General Counsel, Neil Rombardo, chased This Is Reno photographer Eric Marks down a hall and demanded police officers prevent him from leaving the building. 

Rombardo accused Marks of taking photos of his phone’s screen and demanded to see the photos he had taken. Marks said he remained in the designated media area when taking photos of the meeting, as directed. 

“We engaged in a verbal exchange with him again demanding my images for his inspection, only to be met with my response that I had no legal obligation to do so, both as a member of the free press and of the public, in a setting that is public: public domain,” Marks said after the incident. “I felt as though I was being intimidated and interrogated. The implicit intimidation by ordering law enforcement to halt and detain me was clear.”

Marks called the encounter authoritarian. 

“I felt violated and intimidated as Rombardo stood imposingly over me demanding things, while in apparent detainment by school police,” he added.

*CORRECTION: The updated number reflects our current active cases in Washoe County. The previous number cited per 100,000 people was incorrect.
**CORRECTION: The original story indicated that WCSD met these criteria and should not reopen. A review of how these figures are calculated confirms that Washoe County does not meet any of the criteria at this point. The seven-day average over the last month ranges from 6% to 7%.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.